A diploma: new ticket for immigrants?

Proposed law would give illegal-immigrant minors permanent residency if they finish US high school.

Paula is a typical college freshman. She worries about getting good grades, is eager to make new friends, and dreams of her future.

But once she graduates from the University of Houston, by law, her future in America is over. Paula, who asked that her last name not be used, came illegally to the US from Colombia with her mother years ago and is attending college with the help of a new Texas law.

It allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools to enroll in colleges here and pay in-state tuition. But that's as much as their future holds – US immigration law won't allow them to work after graduation. Now, some federal legislators are trying to change that by making illegal-immigrant minors eligible for permanent residency after high school graduation. But the idea is controversial – even though illegal immigrant children have no choice where their parents take them, legally or illegally. Experts have long debated whether easing immigration restrictions rewards and encourages illegal immigration, but Sept. 11 has added a dose of uneasy suspicion to the climate of that debate.

"Any form of amnesty right now, in light of 9/11, is going to be an uphill battle," says David Ray, associate director of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the legislation.

But the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – known as DREAM – has gained momentum. Sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R) of Utah, it was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last month and now goes to the full Senate for consideration. Similar legislation is pending in the House, but it is moving more slowly.

DREAM would give illegal-immigrant minors who graduate from high school permanent resident status if they're at least 12 at the time the bill passes, have been in the US at least five years, and apply before they are 21. It would make it easier for states to allow these immigrants to pay in-state tuition – permitted now only in California, New York, Texas, and Utah.

Mr. Ray sees the bill as yet another reward for illegal immigration, just as is being done in some states by allowing the undocumented to carry driver's licenses, set up bank accounts, and apply for student financial aid. "This is just another example of a schizophrenic government that doesn't know what to do about its immigration dilemma."

But supporters say minors who have no say in the decision to enter the US illegally shouldn't be penalized for that. "We have a generation of kids that are coming of age now, and they are being prevented from doing almost anything they want to do," says Josh Bernstein, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center in Washington. "They should not be made to suffer at the hands of adults, whether by those who wrote the laws, those who are enforcing them, or those who brought them here."

The issue gained national attention in June when four undocumented high school students from Phoenix were detained by US authorities while on a field trip in Buffalo, N.Y. Oscar Corona, 17, was one of those kids. An honor-roll high school senior now in deportation hearings in Phoenix, Oscar says DREAM "is the only thing that could help us."

Before being detained, Oscar hadn't even considered that his immigration status would be a hindrance to his future in the US and didn't understand his illegal status. "I was raised here, I got educated here. So for me, I'm from here," he says of the inability to reconcile legal status with self identity. "I've got my future all planned out, if this doesn't mess it up." His attitude is typical of undocumented children – many of whom speak perfect English, play on high-school sports teams, and have no conscious memory of their birthplace.

"For all intents and purposes, these are American kids. They have grown up here, gone to school here, played by the rules," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza in Washington. "They want to be good citizens, but they are being denied the ability to do so. It's an extraordinary waste of talent."

Each year, an estimated 50,000 to 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from high schools nationwide, says David Johnston, a college advisor at Lee High School in Houston. He says he always has a few illegal immigrants in the top 10 percent of their class, but many get discouraged and drop out because they won't be able to work legally even if they go to college.

"These students are banners for the other children around them," says Mr. Johnston. "It's very disheartening for a community to watch its best and brightest wash dishes."

Paula, the University of Houston freshman, says she'll continue to work toward an international relations career and the dream of a United Nations job. "I really want to do something for this country, to help it in some way. But right now, I just feel excluded."

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